First published in 1994
Living in "a state of near-permanent shame" and ever fearful of being a burden, Eleanor Merritt tries to please everyone, which of course pleases no one. Wracked with guilt at the poverty she sees in Kenya, Eleanor is a soft touch for anyone who wants to take advantage of her -- and nearly everyone does. Eleanor lives in Nairobi, representing an organization that seeks to empower women through birth control -- an ironic choice given that Eleanor feels no empowerment of her own. At a population control conference she encounters Calvin Piper, with whom she once had a fling. Piper, the former director of the USAID's Population Division, now advocates rather extreme methods of controlling population growth (he sees high levels of infant mortality as a good thing). Eleanor also meets Wallace Threadgill, a former advocate of population control who now argues that population expansion is economically beneficial for underdeveloped countries. To Eleanor's dismay, both men are celibate. Eleanor starts spending most of her free time with Calvin and, despite their celibacy, they fight as lovers do (she cares only about feelings, he cares only about facts). When Eleanor learns the nature of Calvin's plan to control the world's population, she can't decide whether to call the police or join the cause.
Although you wouldn't know it from that synopsis, Game Control is a very funny book. Shriver's characters are memorable. Eleanor, 38, childless, and undergoing a midlife crisis that seems to have started in her childhood, could be a cliché, but Shriver makes her fresh. Habitually striving to be kind, Eleanor nonetheless has a biting sense of humor, as when she observes: "I'm quite tired of listening to men describe how they've turned into emotional fence posts as if it's some kind of achievement."
Shriver has great fun with the influence of funding on statistics: her epidemiologists want rates of HIV infection in Africa to be high while her demographers want those rates to be too low to affect population growth; each group produces statistics that will support their fundraising. In materials appended to the 2007 P.S. edition of the novel (the novel was first published in 1994), Shriver explains that she was motivated to write the book by her discovery of the relationship between research and funding.
My biggest issue with Game Control is that the novel doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. The tone is too lighthearted for the book to succeed as drama; Calvin's rather extreme plan to control population growth can't be taken seriously, leaving Eleanor's desire to get laid as the only source of dramatic tension. The novel doesn't fully succeed as a comedy; despite some very funny moments, Shriver's attempt to grapple with serious issues in a serious way undercuts the story's comedic appeal. The novel works best as social commentary but ultimately I was left asking wondering what its thesis was, what point Shriver was trying to make. If her point is that people don't solve problems by attending endless conferences, fair enough, but that leaves us wondering whether people should be doing something else, perhaps something less drastic than Calvin had in mind, but Shriver offers no effective alternatives to the methods that she vilifies. Finally, although the ending is satisfying, Eleanor's lack of personal growth is not. At times it seems she's making progress in her quest to become something other than a doormat, but by the end little about her has changed. That's disappointing given that she is such a likable character. Of course, the novel might simply reflect a disagreeable reality: it is difficult to change one's personality in middle age. That fact makes it no less frustrating to read about a character who doesn't internalize the lessons she seems to be learning.
Despite those reservations, I recommend the novel. It isn't perfect but it's worth reading just for the chance to chuckle while getting to know the characters.